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May 12, 2004

Ernie Els


TODD BUDNICK: We welcome Ernie Els to the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, Ernie 7th on the PGA TOUR Money List, No. 1 in Europe. Off to another good start this year. Why don't we talk a little bit about your good play.

ERNIE ELS: I've been playing well. I had a couple of tournaments in March where I didn't play too good. I was a little off form, but I kind of got it back. I've just come off a nice holiday, had three weeks off. I've been working on my game here and there. I wasn't too occupied with golf to be honest, but I got away from it a little bit, went to South Africa for five, six days, and I just hung out with the family.

So far my season has been pretty good, and I'm looking for some good things to happen the next six weeks. I'm playing six in a row.

Q. You take your break after a 2nd at the Masters and a 3rd at the MCI Heritage. Was that hard to do, playing that well, to just take three weeks off when you're that close?

ERNIE ELS: No. I think mentally more than anything I was probably done, especially after The Masters. My game carried me through at the MCI. I didn't putt very well there, but I played well. It was a decent week, but I needed a break, and I haven't had a three-week break for a while, so it was really nice. I'm refreshed and a little rusty, but I feel I'll get around it. As I say, I've got a nice long stretch ahead of me.

Q. Six in a row, Ernie?


Q. Is that through the Open?

ERNIE ELS: Through the Open, yes. I'm going to go back to Europe for two weeks and come back for Memorial and Buick and U.S. Open, so all my favorite events are right after each other this year. It's funny. So yeah, I haven't done that for a while.

Q. During that three-week break do you try to get your mind off of golf? Do you reflect at all -- you were so disappointed after Augusta. Is that something you try not to think about during that time or you did think about it or it's inevitable?

ERNIE ELS: You think about it a little bit. I still haven't seen the tape of that last Sunday. I still want to see that. As you said, rightly, so, you come so close, and it's a tournament I want so dearly. I really don't feel all that disappointed to be honest with you. You know, it would have been a milestone in my career, put it that way, but the way I played and the way I got outplayed was golf. That afternoon will go down as Masters history, I think. I don't know if you'll see a much more exciting Masters than that, and I was part of it, and for once I was really right in the thick of it. I've had some good finishes there in the past, but this one was right to the end.

Q. You said you want to see the tape. Are you curious to see how it all --

ERNIE ELS: I was on the golf course and I was hearing all the crowd noise, especially the hole-in-ones that were going on. Phil had to really play well to beat me. I think I had a two- or three-shot lead after my eagle on 13, but I haven't seen all the birdies he made, but he had to make a bunch to catch me. It'll be interesting to see how he hit it.

Q. The top four players in the World Rankings are all here. All four of you say you're playing pretty well coming into this tournament, all four of you have won this tournament. The potential is there for you to have a really good shootout.

ERNIE ELS: I don't think Davis is playing.

Q. Well, you, Tiger, Vijay and Phil, you've all won this tournament.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think it's a strong field. The players that you've mentioned have been playing really well, especially Vijay and Phil. Obviously he's having a career year so far. I think Tiger was slipping, he's coming back a little bit. He had a good tournament last week. So I think those players and myself, you know, we have been playing well for quite a bit of time now, so I'm looking forward to my week. It's great for television. I think this week is great for the Tour that they have such a strong field.

I think Byron Nelson has a lot to do with the fact that we've got such a strong field, so it should be great. Again, you've got to put a score on the board. Last week was a great example with Joey Sindelar coming through and winning, so anybody that's hot can win, but it's good to see the top players here.

Q. When you were penciling in your schedule for this part of the year and you saw six in a row and the Open was the last, was there a little concern that there might be a little burnout when you got to Shinnecock?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, absolutely, but when you play both tours, you know, it's kind of difficult sometimes because I won the Order of Merit last year in Europe, and Ken Schofield really wanted me to play at the PGA at Wentworth. That's their flagship event, and they were having their big awards dinner and everything that week. I think it would have been awkward if I wasn't there, and the fact that I've got a house there also helps. SAP, Deutsche Bank, SAP is my main sponsor so I've kind of got to go there.

They're actually playing a nice course this year, it's further south, so we should have good weather, and then obviously the Nelson, Byron Nelson, I missed it last year. I always loved playing here. Then the Buick Classic is my favorite event, also, so it's difficult to leave some events out, and I just felt after a three-week break, I've just got to get back to work and do what I do best, and that's play golf.

Q. Obviously your whole career you've loved playing worldwide and you've had a fabulous career. Have you ever thought if you concentrated on one Tour that you'd be better, worse or the same? What's your theory on that?

ERNIE ELS: I don't know. I've said to you guys so many times through the years that next year I'll play more, next year I'll play more, but I guess I'm comfortable with it. I can't really see myself playing just one Tour at the moment, especially with where my family is now. It would be difficult for me to do that. I'm doing okay, you know, I feel when I play over here three weeks that I can take a break. I can go somewhere else. I play over there a couple of weeks, I can get out of there.

I'd like to believe that I've got the best of both worlds, that I can get out when I want to, and I feel comfortable with that and I'm fine with that.

Q. Could you expand with the attraction that Byron Nelson himself has? It seems like golfers have a great sense of the history of the game, maybe more than other athletes. Do you get a sense that history means something to you?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think with golf especially, if you look at the icons of their time, I think we love playing Arnold Palmer's event at Bay Hill. We get a very strong field there. Same with Jack Nicklaus' Memorial, here at the Byron Nelson, guys love coming here. I must say the golf course has improved. The golf course, the way it's playing this year, it's playing difficult. You can't miss fairways. So the golf courses have improved.

I think you're right. I think golf is a unique sport where the players like to look back and still have that connection with previous champions, and it's a great connection. Yeah, I just walked off the 18th green and saw Mr. Nelson there on his chair on the first tee. He's always got a little story to tell, you know, and it's just great to have these great champions still around and still connected with our sport, with our Tour.

Q. Going back to the two-Tour schedule that you keep, are you pretty good at adapting just to the actual traveling? Do you sleep well on planes? Is your body clock out of whack at times? I'm wondering if you've gotten better at adapting to that over time.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I've been doing it my whole career now, and it's a little easier the way we travel nowadays, so I can sleep a little better. Yeah, jetlag still gets you. Coming this way is no problem. Going back to Europe from here tends to get me a little bit more. I'm a fit young man and I've been doing it my whole life. It's not such a big deal.

When you go through like serious time change, if you go to the Far East, that's a totally different story, but a nine-hour flight, I get on the plane, I have my dinner, sleep, wake up on the other side, and there you are. It's just an overnight flight. It's not a big deal.

As I say, I come from South Africa and I've been doing it since 1984, so it's been 20 years.

Q. Why do you play both tours?

ERNIE ELS: You know, a lot of the guys do what they call their apprenticeship in Europe and then they come here and just play here and settle down in the U.S. and play the Tour. Although I've got a house in Florida, I just never got to do it. I was going to do it way back in 97, 98, and I just never got to do it. It's hard to explain. You know, I still play those tournaments early on.

I don't like playing on the West Coast early on. I find the weather and the way the golf courses play -- I play better golf courses earlier on in the year. I go to Melbourne, play a great golf course down there, then go to the Far East, and as my golf has gone through the years, I've kind of built up a nice kind of name or a brand over there. It's starting to kind of pay off business-wise, too.

All in all, I think it's a lot tougher than what other guys do, but I'm comfortable and it's startling to pay off for me now.

Q. Do you think a European has a better chance to win at Shinnecock?

ERNIE ELS: No, I think if they had the rough a little bit more down and if the ball runs off the greens, maybe, because we play -- European guys play different shots. It might play more like a British Open. But I haven't seen the course yet, but I remember from 95 they had high rough off the fairways, around the greens, and in the wind, although the wind will blow, it might suit the Europeans a little bit, but we also play wind here on the U.S. Tour. I don't really see it. It depends on the layout, how it's set up. If it's quick and fast, I think it's open to a lot of players winning.

Q. Just expand on that a little bit. What was that like at Shinnecock? You played with Nick and Tiger, right? What were your impressions?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I never really felt comfortable on that course. I wasn't playing great there, although a couple of weeks before the U.S. Open I kind of lost my game going into that tournament, so I wasn't too comfortable. I obviously met Tiger -- actually met Tiger before that, but that was kind of the first time we played. He wasn't playing well, either. I think he was going through exams or something, and Pricey was the only one that was really playing well.

But the golf course, yeah, it was a great taste. Tiger hurt his wrist the second day on the 6th hole, I missed a couple of shots. So he left the course and we played a two-ball, so it was kind of a weird U.S. Open. I defended that week and I wasn't on my game, so it was kind of a weird tournament. So I'd like to have a better U.S. Open this year.

Q. Does that experience make it a little bit harder for you to feel good about playing there again? What's kind of your mindset about playing there again?

ERNIE ELS: I'm looking forward to it obviously. As we just said, I've got five weeks before I get there, so hopefully I'll still have a head on my shoulders. But I'm looking forward to it. I can only play better, I believe. I think my game is a lot better than it was back then obviously, and I just want to get stuck in, try and have a chance on Sunday. It's one of the best courses in the world. It's a great layout, so I'm looking forward to it. I mean, I've got nothing to lose. I've won two of them.

Q. Do you think it suits your game fine when you're playing well?

ERNIE ELS: I think any course, yeah. I think the top players in the world can play any golf course, and if you're on your game, you just adapt to the certain golf courses. This week we've got to keep it in play. Length is not really a huge factor, so you've just got to manufacture your way around the golf course, and if you're swinging well, I think you can play any golf course.

Q. Two summers ago before you won the Open, the landscape at the top of pro golf was way different. Tiger had won the first two legs of the Grand Slam and there was this aura of invincibility around him, and now there's not. Do the players feel that? Do you think he feels that?

ERNIE ELS: Well, obviously those -- was it three, four years the way Tiger played, I got a lot of stick for it from the television media, from some of the commentators. Especially after the U.S. Open in 2000, I was playing with the guy, and I finished 2nd six times that year to him, and at that time he was just better than anybody. If you brought your best game, it was still probably not going to be enough. I said that that's how I felt. I got a lot of stick for it, but that's fine.

Times have changed now. I think Tiger is obviously not playing as well as he did back then. You can just look at the stroke averages and fairways hit, greens hit. He's a little bit different than he was back then. Guys like Vijay, Phil, myself, Davis, I think we've been playing really solid for the last two and a half years, so we've kind of elevated a little bit, and that's exactly what's happened. The gap has closed down a little bit. I think guys get on the first tee and really believe that they can win with Tiger in the field, and that's the way it is. That's just golf. You know, golf will always humble the best of them. That's where we are.

Q. If you were his manager, would you advise him to call Butch Harmon?

ERNIE ELS: No (laughter). He knows his swing good enough now. To be honest with you, no. Tiger is Tiger. He knows himself, he knows his swing. He's in control of his life, and I think it's great. He's living his life, and if he really feels he needs Butch, he'll probably still call him. I'm not sure what the situation is there, but he's living his life.

Q. How much do you depend on Lead?

ERNIE ELS: I see Lead three, four, five, maybe six times a year. I see him early in the year. We work on certain things, he lets me go, he watches a lot of television, we email each other, we talk on the telephone quite a bit, and that's that. I would say yes, I rely on him quite a bit. Ricky has got a pretty good eye, I can fall back onto him. I need somebody just to check me out. I've been with David for 16 years now, so he knows me as good as my dad almost.

Q. Mr. Nelson seems to have this aura with all the American players. Is he as well-known on the other side of the ocean?

ERNIE ELS: Absolutely. Anybody that looks at the history of golf, yeah. I mean, you know, he obviously didn't play as much over there as he did over here, but it was interesting, I read in a tournament book this week that his last tournament was in France and he won it, and he said that he left his golf clubs there at some golf course in France. He won the French Open. That was the last tournament he played, and there's definitely a good connection to Europe there.

But yeah, anybody that looks at the history will look at Byron Nelson as one of the greats.

TODD BUDNICK: Thanks for joining us.

End of FastScripts.

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